The future of media and some implications for regulation

Dr Andres Guadamuz
Can we watch Netflix instead dad?

There has been a lot of soul-searching in mainstream media in the past week, following Shane Smith‘s scathing health check at this year’s MacTaggart lecture at the Edinburgh international TV festival.

The lecture should be obligatory viewing for anyone interested in media in general, but also for those of us researching the interaction between technology and regulation, as it shows in good measure what we can expect in the next year. The lecture also conveys the shape of the market at the moment with great accuracy, while confirming some things that we already knew about. New media started challenging old media over a decade ago. The fact that old media is buying new media is old news. What is happening is a consolidation of big media and old media, while the heat generated by consolidation is caused by the death of the 30 second advert spot, which brings us to a change in advertising and shifts in business models.

The analysis of the market resonated quite a lot with my own media consumption. Yesterday I found myself watching two programmes of live TV for the first time since I can remember (if you must ask, Robot Wars and Dragon’s Den). In fact, outside of football, I cannot remember watching two hours of live TV on purpose in the last 5 years. I did not watch the Olympics other than a few minutes of handball in France. On the contrary, I spent my August watching Dota 2’s The International. Hours and hours of it. And I am decidedly of an older generation, kids have entirely given up on TV. The future is streaming. The future is adblocked. Get over it.

Why does it matter to Internet legal studies? In part, I am interested because regulation is still based on the old business models, with assumptions about what generates revenue and what needs to be protected entirely based on media circumstances that are no longer relevant. Smith commented specifically on this, and it is the best part of the lecture in my opinion. He says that old media is not innovating or changing, on the contrary:

“The media industry is reacting in the exact same way that the music industry reacted when peer-to-peer came and threatened them. Instead of innovating we’re retreating with a lot of lawyers surrounding us to hold on to our IP and our ever decreasing piece of the pie. And these lawyers are throwing roadblocks so that they can protect this stuff and whatever money is sloshing around.”

I was also interested to hear about what media experts think about algorithms, and Smith gave an amazing insight into the effect of Facebook changing its algorithms to bring up individual content to detriment of old media providers, which has had a real effect on traffic figures. “Individuals can get more views than The New York Times”. He commented that if Google changes its algorithms too, “God help us”.

Media consumption patterns have changed, and media must change the rules. This sounds like something we already knew, but media and regulators continue to ignore the call. The adblock wars are a testament of how misguided many outlets are in their strategies.

What are the implications for regulation? First we should really heed the warning of lawyers trying to squeeze the last cent from dying business models. Second, we should think more closely about some sort of oversight and transparency in algorithms; a lot of what we see on our screens is the result of some algorithmic decision, and who sets the parameters should be part of a much wider discussion.

I’m now off to watch some YouTube based on what Google thinks I like.

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